Formaldehyde: A Safe Preservative?

Formaldehydes are present in many types of skin care ingredients

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If you have ever dissected something for a biology class, then you are familiar with formaldehyde’s pungent scent and its use as a preservative. Found in nearly one fifth of all cosmetics, formaldehyde and its related ingredients are some of the most commonly used preservatives due to its antimicrobial properties; it can additionally be used as a denaturant to break apart proteins.[1] Widely used for embalming in funerary practices, formaldehyde works by causing proteins to bind in such a way that they become stiff, impeding the decomposition process.[2] This property of formaldehyde is also how nail hardeners work and why it is such a practical preservative in cosmetics: it will affect the bacteria and fungi proteins, killing them.[3] Formaldehyde is a natural product found in fruits and even our own bodies, where it is metabolized into carbon dioxide.[4] But is this effective ingredient safe in the products we use on our skin?

Formaldehyde has been known to cause contact dermatitis with sensitization (a type of eczema due to an allergic response) in the United States, affecting up to 9% of the population.[5] However, like many allergies, this is concentration dependent. Personal care products containing formaldehyde and related preservatives have been deemed safe when used as directed.[6] Additionally, this preservative is typically added to cosmetics as formaldehyde-releasing compounds that decompose slowly over time (or with changes in its environment like increased temperature or exposure to air) resulting in long term preservation of product.[7] While inhalation of formaldehyde has been linked with several different types of cancers of the respiratory tract, classifying it as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization, its use in personal care products appears to be low enough to be considered safe.[8,9] However, its use in hair smoothing products such as Brazilian blowouts can be hazardous since much larger amounts of formaldehyde are released during the process, potentially affecting the health of those who frequently use such products (such as hair stylists).[6] Nail hardening products can also be cause for concern due to higher formaldehyde concentrations. These products often list it as methylene glycol in the igredients list.

If you have experienced sensitization to formaldehyde and its related ingredients, it would be prudent to check your product labels for the following: formalin, quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, methylene glycol, methylene oxide, formol, methanal, methyl aldehyde, methaldehyde, oxomethane, and oxymethylene.[9] The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate the amount of these ingredients used; however, they do require that products must be safe.[10] While alternatives to formaldehyde and its related compounds exist, they are not commonly used in the industry partly due to lack of consumer demand and partly due to the lower cost of formaldehyde.[11] Regardless, it is generally agreed upon that it is better to have a product containing formaldehyde than it is to have a product contaminated with harmful microbes. However, as more alternative preservatives come to market, the use of formaldehyde related ingredients will likely decrease. 

Table 1. Formaldehyde Related Ingredients 

Formalin

Quaternium-15

DMDM hydantoin

Methylene glycol

Methylene oxide

Formol
Methanal

Methyl aldehyde

Methaldehyde
Oxomethane
Oxymethylene

 

 

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References

 

 

  1. De Groot AC, Veenstra M. Formaldehyde-releasers in cosmetics in the USA and in Europe. Contact Dermatitis.2010;62(4):221-224; PMID: 20236159
  2. CDC. Guideline for Disinfection and Sterilization in Healthcare Facilities: Formaldehyde. 2008.
  3. FDA. Nail Care Products. 2016.
  4. IARC. Chemical Agents and Related Occupations: Formaldehyde. Link to research World Health Organization: Internation Agency for Research on Cancer;2012.
  5. De Groot AC, Flyvholm M-A, Lensen G, et al. Formaldehyde-releasers: relationship to formaldehyde contact allergy. Contact allergy to formaldehyde and inventory of formaldehyde-releasers. Contact Dermatitis.2009;61(2):63-85; PMID: 19706047
  6. Boyer IJ, Heldreth B, Bergfeld WF, et al. Amended Safety Assessment of Formaldehyde and Methylene Glycol as Used in Cosmetics. International Journal of Toxicology.2013;32(Supplement 4)(5S-32S)PMID: 24335968
  7. Lv C, Hou J, Xie W, et al. Investigation on formaldehyde release from preservatives in cosmetics. Int J Cosmet Sci.2015;37(5):474-478; PMID: 25704726.
  8. Lefebvre M-A, Meuling WJA, Engel R, et al. Consumer inhalation exposure to formaldehyde from the use of personal care products/cosmetics. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology.2012;63(1):171-176; PMID: 22406137
  9. ACCC. Product Safety bulletin: Formaldehyde in cosmetics indcluding hair products. Link to research Australian Competition and Consumer Commission;2011.
  10. Title 21, Chapter I, Subchapter G - Cosmetics. In: Administration FaD, ed. 21. Link to research.
  11. Reisch MS. Keeping Well-Preserved: Cosmetic preservatives makers offer alternatives as widely used parabens come under scrutiny. 2005;83(46):25-27.